Monthly Archives: May 2012

Flute Pedagogy 101

I have been thinking for a while about how we learn the flute and how we teach it nowadays. 

It seems to me that when I was taught I was pretty much never told “how to do anything”  but rather what the result should be. Yet, nowadays it seems to me that “Flute Pedagogy” is very different. It seems to be all about the “how todo  it”…..  and sometimes I really wonder because of that,  if the desired result…i.e the music  has been lost….. or at least diluted.

This also relates to my previous post and the discussion which followed about individual differences in anatomy affecting the results of how we hold and line up our instruments.

Specifically … a kid  I was pretty much handed a flute headjoint and told to get a sound. No one really told me how nor did they show me how. I remember spending several weeks before I managed to figure it out….Nowadays.. I prepare all my students for weeks  with spitting rice, practicing our horsey faces, and lip “trills” etc many times before I then show them how to get a sound. (It is much more efficient and also much more effective for sure… BUT and there is a big BUT here…… read on…..)

Added to this…..When I got to College my teachers never told me how to tongue or  what articulation syllables to use…. it was instead all about the desired result…. i.e. the music. In fact, I was encouraged to be a musician first and a flutist second… When I was finished with my Masters Degree in flute I studied for many years with Julius Baker…. and he never once told me how to do anything on the flute. I used to quipe that I learned from him by “osmosis”…… as I think all of his students did. With “Julie” as with all of  my other teachers… was all about the music…i.e the desired  result …. and not about the mechanics of how to play the flute.They simply expected that I was talented and musical and that playing the flute was secondary to making music….. and more to the point , that  I should be able to figure out the mechanics on my own.

Next point…..My first professional job was a union gig that I held for  years  as the second flute and piccolo player in the New Jersey State Opera Company Orchestra. We played all over the state of NJ… in the Graden State Arts Center, at the Trenton War Memorial, and at Symphony Hall in Newark. I even performed on national TV ( NBC) with them. Yet I never had had a piccolo lesson before I got that gig at all. I was simply handed a piccolo in eighth grade and told to learn how to play it.In fact, the first formal piccolo lesson I ever had was two summers ago at the Wildacres Flute Retreat when I scheduled a piccolo lesson with Brad Garner! Yet I have been a professional piccolo player for decades!

Moreover, I took piano lessons as a  child but only had a few months of formal flute lessons from a flute teacher until I was accepted at the Ithaca College School of Music as  flute major ( I was instead taught by my Middle School Band teacher … who happened to be a sax player.)….. and only took flute lessons form a real flutist as a Senior in High School   to prepare for my college auditions! If you think this was unheard of 50 years agao… think again.. None other than Wally Kujala was in the same boat. We simply taught ourselves!

But .. and it is a BIG but…. I did study MUSIC as a piano major all those years before College  and Wally Kujala had his father who was a professional musician to teach him music … even if it was  not to teach him specifially to  play  the flute.I think there is some merit in considering this for a moment. Especially if…. as it seems to me ….. that there are so many flute pedagogy”truths”  which are so different … and  they    seem to depend so much upon the particular teacher with whom you study ….for example ….as to whether you  forward tongue or not etc. ( BTW…..Julius Baker NEVER forward tongued… at least as far as I could tell he didn’t… and yet his articulation was simply amazing) or whether you hold your left hand in a “cocked” position or not etc. etc.

Yet nowadays we spend endless amounts of time on how to not just hold our flutes ….but even how to hold our bodies!

Don’t get me wrong here. I do believe that flute playing and teaching has made huge strides for the better…. and that so called “body mapping” etc and specific pedagogical techniques such as I learned in my Suzuki flute training  have not only made me (and many of my other contemporary flute teachers )  better flute teachers than many of my/our own teachers were…. but has it  made  todays’  students more musical? And isn’t THAT the point?So—here is where I begin to really wonder and really question what it is that we are trying to do.

In the  final analysis for sure… our instrument is only a means to an end which surely is the prduction of music… and more to the point… the expression of the wordless emotion which is in the sound. It really is NOT about how we hold it nor how we blow it etc etc…. but it really is about the desired result….i.e.  the music.

I don’t for a moment believe that  teaching what we think is the best way to hold our flutes or teaching  how  what we believe  is the best way  to  articulate  is not important to that end result at all… and I am not suggesting here that we should go back to the way I and perhaps many of my generation were taught….. BUT I do think that something valuable   may have been  been lost along the way and that perhaps  a re-ordering of our pirorities may be in order.

For in the end… if there is no consensus on how to do all these flute things (and there really isn’t as far as I can tell!) …  and  if that is at least partially  true because  of individual differences etc , then  why is the emphasis in flute teaching  today so focused on  the “how”  instead of the end result…  which is the music and how to play it? 

Well…. this is probably more controversial than it should be for a public Blog Post …. but honestly  it does trouble me allot.And I have been thinking about posting a Blog Entry on this subject for quite a while… so here it is.

Any thoughts/comments  out there?






How to Develop your technique on the Flute

Proably the most important book in your/our arsenal for developing your /our finger technique on the flute is the absolutely essential “Taffanel-Gaubert 17 Big Daily Exercises” book . Every flutist should own this book…….And in this classic flute book…. out of all of the 17 exercises which  you will find  there  … the very first  excercise  is the most important one of all. 

 I frankly find it  quite amazing that  even though about 100 years have past since this Book was first published , that this very simple but effective scale excercise  number 0ne is still the  most important and  essential  scale excercise we should do on a daily basis  to develop our finger technique!

so……although there are countless  ways to practice  this excercise. Here is the first and most basic way that I recommend ……

1. First of all….Memorize this study! It is essential  to memorize this study so that you do not have to look at the notes and can listen to yourself as you practice. ( and be able to watch your fingers in a mirror while you practice it). The pattern is really quite easy to discover: it is a five note pattern starting on low D  in D Major  repeated four times  and then it progresses to a five note pattern in Eb Major but still starting on low D…. but on the fourth repeat the pattern changes and resolves to Eb Major. This pattern continues up the entire compass of the flute into the third octave all the way to high B natural (we can extend it of course even higher).

2. Julius Baker used to make me (and all of his students )play the entire first two lines in one breath and hold the resolution note of the third line for at least four beats. Then he made us start again on the resolution note ( in this case that aforementioned Eb) and repeat this process throught out the entire study.

3. It is important to play this excercise with as big a  tone  as you can on all the notes and with with a healthy virbrato on each note.. In addition, it is also important to make every note clear and your fingers very even. You may find intially that this is quite a challenge but in time you will see results!

4.Once you can play this excercise slurred try it in the same manner but double tongued.( no virbrato in this case of course except on the very last held note.)

Now on to the second way…….

5.While slurring as you did initially try repeating the first two notes as if you are trilling them….. that makes the  pattern into D,E,D,E,… D,E,D,E, ….D,E,F#,G,….. A,G,F#,E……. and on the next line it would be D,Eb,D,Eb…  D,Eb,D,Eb,….D,Eb,F,G….Ab,G,F,Eb etc. Now you are specifically practicing the finger combinations of the third finger of your right hand  and your pinkie etc…. make sure your finger every note absolutely correctly so that you are working your fingers as much as possible while at the same time keeping your hand as relaxed as possible.

6. Next vary the top note…. in this case the A and the note which is not indicated in the music above the A  (which is a  B) …. that is play D,E,F#,G,….A,B,A,B,…..A,G,F#,E……..Now you are working a completely different set of fingering combinations!

7. Pracice these two variations as you did the intial two ways… that is first slurred as indicated in step number one and then double tongued as indicated in step number four.

8. Start at whatever metronome indication you can in which you are playing with an even finger control…. no fast fingers in places which are easy for you and slow fingers in places that are not. And all the way through the entire excercise all the way up throughout the entire compass of the instrument up to at least the high B which is indicated in the printed edition( it is claimed that Taffanel hated the high C so he left it out…. but that doesn’t mean we should!!) at the same metronome mark!  The slowly increase your tempo to at least a quarter note to 120. Later when you can do this excercise well you can increase it up to perhaps even 160 ( or at least 140-152).

This is best way I know to get your technique up to snuff and onto a virtuosity level. In fact…. believe it or not there is an added benefit to this…..because when you practice this study you are actually also developing  your tone…. because in the slurred variaitions you are also  practicing virbrato …. and you are also listening….. assuming  if it is memorized…. to every note for pitch, tone color matching between notes , even virbrato on each note and dynamics to be the absolute same on every note on the flute!! And of course you are at the same time developing finger eveness througout the entire range of the instrument.

There are many excercises we can practice and many books of scales which have been published since this little 17 excercise study excerpt of the complete Taffanel-Gaubert Method for Flute was published about 100 years ago …. but this  book and this particular study still remains the very most important one….. in my humble opinion …..for us to do on a daily basis in order to develop your/our finger technique.

Doing it daily with all the variations …. should rapidily help you improve ……. So………Have fun fluting  and enjoy  getting better at the same time while also doing your daily excercises!



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